Now, I like a birthday party as much as the next person (so long as it’s not mine, that is, I can’t handle all that hostess pressure, that will-they won’t-they turn up/get on/bring a bottle business); I’ll happily stand about for a couple of hours finishing up the egg sandwiches and cheesy pineapple cocktail sticks, picking over the Wotsits and Monster Munches with the best of them, but there is one thing I am glad to see the back of. Well, two, if you count party bags.
It’s presents that have the capacity to make me sigh the sigh of the long suffering. Not that I would ever look a gift horse in the mouth, you understand; my house is stuffed to the rafters with gifts that I neither bought or particularly liked because I cannot bring myself to be churlish enough to pass them on. Thank you letters have been sent and received. No, I’m glad that they have reached the age when Birthday Money has become the thing to give and to receive.
My children, spoilt brats that they are, like nothing better than squandering their tenners on things of which I disapprove (over priced Minecraft tat is the latest object of desire), and I, glad as I am to allow them the opportunity to throw good money away on the latest rubbish that I have not had to earn with the sweat of my brow or the loss of my voice, am happy to follow them round the toy store as they chew their lips in consternation when finally presented with a real choice.
It’s an interesting education, watching them make their way up and down the aisles. Sam, true to form, finds the cars and lorries; although now that he has discovered Eddie Stobart and internet shopping he has become a little less determined to spend his money on the first traffic related toy to catch his eye. A, now that he has grown out of Thomas the Tank Engine (although he does retain a residual fondess for the cheery blue engine) wanders up and down the Lego aisle, gazing longingly at the most expensive sets (to the accompaniment of ‘when you have that amount of money you may have what you like, you could always choose to save it’). And L, she who looks at Frozen with the face of one horrified and won’t go near the Barbie pink, peruses the computer games (and the Lego and the Minecraft).
Frankly, it’s a relief.
Sam’s presents were never a problem, to be fair. He has always had such a clearly expressed love affair with the wheeled vehicle that nine times out of ten, that’s what he got. Except when he got a craft kit. The worst ones were the ones where you had to make a fully functional tank out of matchsticks, closely followed by the paint-your-own moneybox. Thankfully, nobody ever gave him a fashion jewellery set (although he was once invited to a makeover party); no, that honour comes to my daughter, who accepts such offerings with a polite smile and never looks at them again.
Oh, I understand why people buy them, I really do. They want to give an active gift, one that will last for longer than the few minutes it takes to rip the wrapping paper off, extract the item from the box with great anticipation and break it, something that will keep them busy and entertained in a productive manner. I’ve been known to purchase the odd spirograph myself. When I was a child I liked nothing better than those pencil cases that were the same size as a book; when you zipped them open there, contained within was a collection of delights, all in rainbow order.
I feel the same way about those craft kits as I do about dressing up clothes. It’s no longer acceptable these days to clack about the garden in your mother’s best high heels, with brass curtain rings on elastic bands around your ears and a funny shaped hat. A bit of net curtain just won’t do as a wedding veil, a bucket doesn’t cut it for a helmet. No, today, if the toy stores are to be believed, dressing up is only right if you are a fireman, a policeman, a doctor or a nurse, or an Elsa, a Snow White, a Mr Incredible or a Spiderman complete with sponge six-pack.
The thing is, though, is that once you are dressed as Snow White, or Cinderella, or Ariel or Belle, that’s all you can ever be. That jewellery kit will only make fashion jewellery and that money box will only ever be a money box, the decoration of which will forever disappoint you because you will never be able to make it look like the picture on the box. The Lego set, it seems, these days, will only make the fire engine, or the helicopter or, most cynically, Lord Business’ melting chair.
I used to think I was alone in my antipathy to kits. Until, that is, I fell into conversation with a friend of mine, a friend who is not only a real life artist, but one who is also a teacher. We stood together, one windswept afternoon, waiting for our daughters to emerge from the school building (what do they do in there? Why does it take them so long?), engaging in the sort of philosophical debate you wouldn’t believe goes on out there in the playground, and she told me what she does with them.
She chucks away the bits she doesn’t need and mixes up the rest.
I like that.